Would Johnny Marr reform The Smiths for $1,000?
17th Nov 2009 | 15:50
We asked, he answered - and it's not 'no'!
Johnny Marr is talking way too much. That's not exactly a problem - except for the fact that the two of us are riding the elevator in New York City's Warner Brothers Records building and he's already giving me answers to questions I'm due to ask in just a few minutes.
Marr is in town with his new bandmates, The Cribs, for an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman and a pair of sold-out shows at The Bowery Ballroom, and the revered ex-Smiths guitarist is looking forward to playing with what he calls "one of the best bands I've ever been associated with."
That Marr, who divides his time between homes in Portland, Oregon (where he met Cribs bassist, Gary Jarman) and Manchester, England, joined what many see as a B-level band took quite a few people by surprise - something Marr himself finds surprising.
"It's all part of a musical journey," he says as we exit the elevator. "And The Cribs are a great, great band. The fact is, I'd be stupid to not join them, and I'm supremely happy I got the chance to do so."
Marr's trademark guitar work is very much felt on The Cribs' newest album, Ignore The Ignorant. His breezy, lyrical, and yes, jangly lines fill in key spaces between the band's jagged, jerky rhythms and riffs. Produced by Nick Launay, Ignore The Ignorant, is The Cribs' most polished effort, and the band (which also includes singer-guitarist Ryan Jarman and brother Ross on drums) just might have a shot at a hit single in the States with the memorable We Share The Same Skies.
The Cribs (from left to right) Ryan Jarman, Johnny Marr, Ross Jarman, Gary Jarman
Marr asks a Warners rep for coffee ("my only vice these days," he says sheepishly) and we settle into a cozy little room with plush couches, along with Ryan, to talk about the new direction of The Cribs, guitars (shredders, beware!), and last but not least, The Smiths.
Marr's former band always has a way of popping up in interviews, and while the guitarist has stated that he's "bored" with the topic, MusicRadar raised the issue in a most unusual way - and Marr's response was not what we were expecting.
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How did this little romance take place? You guys are living in Portland, Oregon, right?
Ryan Jarman: "Johnny was. And my brother Gary, who plays bass, he was living there. Me and Ross still live in England. But because Gary was in Portland and Johnny was in Portland, that's where they ended up meeting. Which is weird: All our lives we've lived, like, 45 minutes from where Johnny lives in Manchester, and we've never bumped into each other at all. To travel 5000 miles and to have met up in Portland…[to Johnny] You guys got to talking, I guess."
Johnny Marr: "I was already a fan of The Cribs. In the early part of 2005 when The New Fellas came out, I got really into that. Gary and I bumped into each other and struck up a friendship - just two musicians in a new city. Very soon after that, Ryan and Ross and I met at the Glastonbury Festival, and soon after that, Ryan and I bumped into each other again and we decided to get together to play, just to see what would happen, really.
"There wasn't any grand scheme or career plans. Far from it. We just got together in a funky little room in the cold in the north of England and started playing some riffs, and we immediately started writing songs.
"All of us have been in groups from our early teens, which is a very important part of how we get along. We all know that when it sounds good, you follow that. Chemistry is very important. It felt natural - for me and the other boys as well."
Now, Johnny, of course you were in The Smiths, and since then you've played with a lot of people. You did a little stint in the band Modest Mouse -
But a lot of people might be wondering, are you a permanent member of The Cribs, or is this something you're doing temporarily?
"I'm a permanent member of The Cribs, and very happy to be so" Johnny Marr
Marr: "I can see why people might think that, but I'm a permanent member of The Cribs, and very happy to be so.
"I understand that question, because I've followed my own map, so to speak, but with a lot of great people. It comes back to the answer to the first question: When the chemistry is really good, that's really important. When you find yourself in the right group, unless you have some sort of personal issues, which we don't, it kind of dictates your life, really.
"We're thinking of making the next record. Like I say, I understand that question, but it's not as big a deal as it might be."
Ryan, how long was the process where you went from, 'Holy shit, we've got Johnny Marr in the band!' to 'He's just another member'?
Jarman: "Pretty swiftly, really. From the moment we started playing together and started writing…you don't think of the personality involved, you know what I mean? I just think of the songs. I don't think any of us really thought about it; we didn't realize the significance of it."
"I'm sure when we were driving up on the day, I was kind of excited: 'Oh, this is gonna be cool. Something for the scrapbook.' But as soon as you start writing songs, it all goes out the window."
Marr: "You get down to work. I also think, just weirdly, it was a matter of synchronicity. I happened to be able to appear with the band at the same time back in the UK when they were doing some dates on a tour. I was playing some of the old songs just for fun. So we didn't have to wait a year to find out whether I sounded right on the old songs, 'cause I was doing that for fun anyway."
Where is the band actually based?
Marr: "We're together all the time. We had one four-week break, four and a half weeks maybe, in the summer, which is the longest we've been apart since I was in the band. Gary and I went to Portland at that time, but that's because we weren't working."
Jarman: "The band doesn't need to be based anywhere. For the last few years of my life, I've lived a completely nomadic existence, and I feel the band does that, too.
"Those guitars are like driving an old vintage sports car very, very fast. There's a lot of things that can go wrong with them, and I like that" JohnnyMarr on Fender Jaguars
"When we were writing this album, we'd get together for a couple of weeks in Manchester, then we'd go to Portland for a couple of weeks, and the change in scenery was really good for our creativity. I like the fact that the band doesn't have a set base. I feel as though a set base would limit what we do creatively."
Let's talk about your guitars. Now, Johnny, you're known for playing Rickenbackers, particularly 330 models. But lately I've seen you playing Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters.
Marr: "Yeah. The Rickenbacker I've had a real love for. The reason I started playing it, truth be told, is because of its limitations. I started playing the Jaguar for the same reason. They force me to play in a certain way. You can't really do blues-rock on a Rickenbacker, and a Jaguar isn't a right guitar for a blues-rock musician either.
"I had this idea for a very punchy, stinging kind of Fender sound, and when I played in Modest Mouse [singer-guitarist] Issac Brock had one lying around. It fit what I do real well. And I can make it sound Rickenbacker-ish, I can make it sound clean, but I do a lot of dirty stuff with it.
"The actual architecture of the guitar, I have to kind of wrestle with it. Those guitars are like driving an old vintage sports car very, very fast. There's a lot of things that can go wrong with them, and I like that - it keeps me on my toes."
Ryan, I've seen you go from Fender Mustangs to Gibson ES-335s.
Jarman: "My main guitar is the 335. I used to use the Mustang 'cause it was the only guitar I had. I always thought those guitars were fun to play, and they looked great. But when we went into the studio to record our third record, Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand loaned me his 335, and it just sounded so much better."
"I liked how the semi-acoustic nature of the guitar would lend itself to feedback. As soon as I stopped playing, the guitar would feed back. It gave my performance an element of threat because I could feel the feedback building up.
"My favorite guitar, though, is an Epiphone Coronet. I've used it on every record. They're so light and fun to play, and they have a distinctive tone you just can't get with any other guitar."
Amp-wise, do you guys make specific choices so you don't clash sonically?
Marr: "I use a Fender Super Reverb and an early '60s Marshall 100-watt Plexi head. I use them in combination so they sound like one big amp. I use the Fender for the top end and the Marshall for the bottom."
Jarman: "I've always used Orange amps. I got one when we got a record deal - I always wanted one when I was a kid. I use a combo amp and it sounds really good. I've never been one of those people that thought too much about amps. I kind of want to start experimenting with them in the future."
"Shredding, to me, is akin to having a incredibly overblown vocabulary at your disposal and saying very, very little" Johnny Marr
Johnny, you're pretty much known as an 'anti-soloist,' if you will. But on the song City Of Bugs, there's a pretty big solo. What was the reason for that?
Marr: "I hate these terms, but it's more of a post-rock part that I do. When I started out, my anti-solo attitude really held me in good stead because now I'm not anti-solo, but 90 percent of me is in the same place. The other 10 percent that likes to do a solo I have to keep in check so it's coming from taste.
"I haven't changed my ideology, but over the years I've started to do some solos. Generally, I like guitar music to be heady. I don't mean lots delays and echoes -
Not psychedelic per se.
Marr: "Psychedelic in the true sense but not in the '60s sense. I like it to be heady and trippy. Trippy can be more along the lines of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher than some '60s Fillmore business. I like weird stuff."
Let me ask both of you about guitar players, the shred culture in particular. Any big beefs with it?
Marr: "Well, it appears to be tasteless and aesthetically pretty corny, I think."
Jarman: "I don't like it when people play for themselves. I've always been a big fan of playing for the song. As far as wanting to impress, you're only impressing other guitarists. Some music that is so technically proficient, it says to me that there's been too many hours spent in the bedroom rehearsing and not enough living going on. You need to have a social life."
Marr: "You need to have something to say. Shredding, to me, is akin to having a incredibly overblown vocabulary at your disposal and saying very, very little. Or saying a lot that is ultimately meaningless and just a display of your virtuosity and practice power.
"I'm not saying underachieving is a good thing either. But I don't want to sit in front of somebody who has an incredible vocabulary but is talking bullshit. And playing the guitar is really just talking with your fingers, isn't it?"
What do the two of you like about each other's playing?
Jarman: "I really like Johnny's playing for being very romantic. It's very melodic, but it's not obvious. It paints a pretty picture. There's not many guitar players held in high esteem who are actually tasteful. That says a lot, really."
Marr: "When I first heard Ryan's playing, I found it to be really original in a way that was kind of confounding, which is always a great thing. I like when you don't know where it's coming from, and I think that's what innovation is. It gets harder and harder, as we've got like, 40, 50 years of guitar culture, to hear somebody who's really innovative."
Do you two actually practice the guitar? Do you sit down and work on scales, riffs or licks?
Jarman: "I don't. I don't even have a guitar at home. That's purely down to the fact that…I do love the guitar and I love playing, but when we get together to write, if I haven't played in a long time, I don't feel rusty at all - I feel excited. I haven't run the tank dry by sitting at home and trying to write constantly."
Marr: "I have a lot guitars around and I play if I'm on the phone or if the sound is down on the television in an absent-minded way. It's more of a physical thing. I think what Ryan was saying…it's important to protect your inspiration and enthusiasm. You can run the tank dry.
"I have a tendency to put aside time to play and really burn myself out, but that's not from doing scales, it's from coming up with, like, 300 chord changes. You have to keep the romance alive. The idea of sitting in a room and playing for eight hours and then writing a decent song absolutely terrifies me."
Let me ask you about another song on the new record, Stick To Yr Guns. That's a pretty sophisticated arrangement.
Marr: "It came about out of jamming and improvisation."
Jarman: "A late-night jam kind of thing. That song originally was, like, 15 minutes long. We just went round and round and round. Then we edited it down to six minutes and took the best bits. But because it was a jam, there was a lot of little tasty bits - obviously, we didn't want to use the same devices too many times. There was a lot of edits on it."
Well, Johnny, now comes the part of the interview where get to that good ol' Smiths question that I know you've been waiting for with baited breath. But we have a little twist on it…
[Marr shifts his weight on the couch and chuckles self-consciously]
You, of course, have been offered upwards of $10 million, The Smiths, for a reunion tour.
Marr: "Aw, yeah."
But we at MusicRadar have passed our hats around, and we've come up with… are you ready?
"I'll tell you what: if the other guys wanna go for that, who would I be to turn that thousand pounds down?" Johnny Marr 'accepts' (kind of) MusicRadar's offer for a Smiths reunion
[smiles] Marr: "Yeah."
One thousand dollars.
[a befuddled look] Marr: "Well, I'm in the…you know, I'm in the…"
A thousand dollars.
Marr: "Well, that would take me away from The Cribs, so I can't do that."
But it's a thousand bucks, man!
[Ryan nudges him and whispers something] Marr: "Hang on a minute…[looks to Ryan]…Ryan's nudging me to say, 'Take it, take it' and give him a cut."
Oh, you don't have take it. You could donate it to charity, you could give it to Ryan -
Marr: "Give him a cut of it."
Absolutely. He could be the manager.
Marr: "Yeah, well, at least it's funny and it's not obscene, you know. I'll tell you what: if the other guys wanna go for that, who would I be to I turn that thousand pounds down? [thinks quickly] Oh, it's dollars?"
Well, we might be able to rack it up to pounds.
Marr: "Oh, you've gotta work on that exchange rate, man."
OK, we'll see what we can do.
Marr: "When the exchange rate goes up to like, you know, at least twice that…
There you go. And again, you don't have to keep it. You could give it to Ryan, you could donate it to charity.
Marr: "Yeah, well, I would probably do that."
Editor's note: Morrissey, if you're reading this, the next move is yours...